Under relentless pressure from President Donald Trump, Mexico is said to be ready to discuss changes to trade rules about a product's country of origin to try to avoid a disruptive fight with the United States over commerce.
As the two countries begin a difficult new relationship, Mexico sees possible common ground with Trump on the "rules of origin" of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that binds the two countries and Canada, Reuters reported. However, as AFP adds, even before the talks started, Mexico has drawn red lines ahead of the negotiations with Trump's administration, warning it could quit the talks and NAFTA itself, if the discussions hit a wall, no pun intended.
Of course, it all begins with the wall.
During his campaign, Trump vowed to make Mexico pay for a massive border wall and threatened to finance it by tapping into the $25 billion in remittances that Mexican migrants sent back home last year. Mexico does not see things that way. "There are very clear red lines that must be drawn from the start," Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo told the Televisa network as he prepares to meet with US officials in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday.
Asked whether the Mexican delegation would walk away from the negotiating table if the wall and remittances are an issue, Guajardo said: "Absolutely." Guajardo and Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray will hold the face-to-face talks with the new US administration ahead of a meeting between Trump and President Enrique Pena Nieto on January 31.
In addition to the wall, Trump wants to renegotiate NAFTA with Mexico and Canada, warning last week that he would abandon the pact unless the United States gets "a fair deal." The Mexican government has responded that it is willing to "modernize" the pact, which came into force in 1994 and represents $531 billion in annual bilateral trade between Mexico and the United States.
Some 80 percent of Mexico's exports go to the United States, a clear indicator of the country's dependence on the US market for its economic well-being.
But Guajardo warned on Tuesday that Mexico was also willing to use the nuclear option, and exit the 23-year-old agreement. "If we're going for something that is less than what we have now, it doesn't make sense to stay in," Guajardo said.
That said, since Trump's stated intention is ultimately dismantling Nafta, Mexico's gambit does not sound like a very reasonable initial negotiating position.
Cited by AFP, Pena Nieto vowed on Monday that there would be "neither confrontation nor submission" in the negotiations, which will include trade, immigration and other issues. Pena Nieto also looked further north for help on Sunday as he spoke with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by telephone to discuss ways to boost North American economic integration.
Luis de la Calle, a Mexican economist and one of the original NAFTA negotiators, said it is impossible to enter negotiations without being willing to walk away if necessary.
Trump "puts pressure in an almost extortionist manner... to get as many concessions as possible," de la Calle told AFP. "But countries must be much smarter."
It was not clear just how countries can be smarter if, at least in the case of Mexico, the US has enough trade leverage it could cripple 80% of Meixcan exports overnight.
Videgeray said that while the United States has "great interest" in talking about trade, Mexico wants to "talk about every issue."
On a separate topic, Pena Nieto has called on the Trump administration to do more to stop the illegal flow of weapons from the United States into Mexico, which Mexican officials blame for fueling a brutal drug war. To this Trump has responded that Mexico has to do more to stop the illegal flow of drugs from Mexico to the United States.
Meanwhile, even as it faces tough talks with the United States, the Mexican government is setting its eyes on new trade pacts with other countries. After Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Monday, Pena Nieto said his government would immediately seek to negotiate bilateral agreements with other TPP members to "diversify" his country's trade relations.
Guajardo noted that Mexico has good relations with China and said Beijing was a "big concern" for the Trump administration. It is unclear whether China has an interest in expanding its Pacific trade partnership to include the US neighbor, and how the US would react to such an eventuality.
But Valeria Moy, director of the Mexico Como Vamos think tank, said Latin America's second biggest economy cannot lose sight of the importance of the United States while it looks for deals elsewhere.
"If you have the world's biggest market next door to you, that's the market you need to take care of, period," Moy said. "What we can diversity is who we buy from." And since that is not the US, one can see why Trump is confident he has all the leverage ahead of this particular round of trade talks which will be closely followed by the rest of the world, as it sets the stage for similar bi- and multi-lateral talks with other nations around the globe all vying for the wallet of America's overindebted consumer.
Finally, making matters worse for Mexico is that suddenly its "other" Nafta partner, Canada, appears to have left it hanging. In a separate Reuters report, Canada said it would focus on preserving its U.S. trade ties during talks to renegotiate NAFTA and may not be able to help Mexico avoid being targeted by the Trump administration, Canadian government sources say.
"We love our Mexican friends. But our national interests come first and the friendship comes second," a source said on the sidelines of a cabinet retreat in Calgary, Alberta.
"The two are not mutually exclusive," the source added. The comment was the starkest yet by Canadian officials, who are increasingly convinced Mexico will suffer the most damage from changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The government dismisses the idea that Canada will formally abandon Mexico. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said on Tuesday that Canada supported NAFTA as a trilateral agreement and noted that Trudeau had talked to Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto over the weekend.
That said, the government sources note Mexico and Canada would appear to have little in common. Trump is unhappy about the large U.S. deficit with Mexico and has promised to punish firms with manufacturing bases there.
"Our negotiating positions are totally different. Mexico is being hung out of an skyscraper window by its feet," said a second government source.
"Mexico is in a terrible, terrible position. We are not," said another Canadian person involved on the trade file.
And just like that, Trump has managed to divide, and shortly conquer, his counterparties in yet another negotiation.